Facing Violence

In a week during which several deaths have been recorded in India – in each, the perpetrators belonged to a social group who did not wish to enter an economic or social contract with individuals from another social group perceived as simultaneously inferior and locally oppressive, and wherein each symbolic action (words, raising the national flag on Republic Day) was the offensive trigger for violent retaliation (Chandan in Kasganj, Manjunath in Bangalore, Ankit in Delhi) – I connect the news to an incident I witnessed in Kolkata.

On Jan 28th, 2018, late at night in Kolkata, India, I observed three women being threatened with violent communal retaliation by an Uber driver because one of these women questioned the driver’s peremptory ride cancellation after the car was loaded and the trip had started. The driver told them to get out, physically intimidated them, declared he would block their street departure location with his car all night, and if the women didn’t shut up he would bring people back from Kidderpore. (The driver obviously guessed enough about his passengers to threaten them with violence from a different religious community). All this under the benign and smiling presence of local traffic policemen, who blamed the women because they couldn’t detain the driver.

Violence becomes real when it is personal. Up close, it is also a large emotion, inciting us to large actions. If we have learned to exteriorize and blame all our misfortunes on the ‘Other’ and its deliberate malice (person, group, entity, event), we enter the justificatory realm of virtuous scapegoating.

If I say my city has changed in 20 years, I will likely be called a bigoted bhakt or worse in India, a vile Islamophobe in the U.S., and a Modi-moron in my old discursive academic world (which told me to leave since I was an un-progressive settler colonial anyway). My good interlocutors will throw Ayodhya, Kashmir, NE India and Trump at me (lumped under an imagined category in their heads that they mis-read from Anglophone media; they still ask, ‘You speak Hindu?’ To which I say I don’t).

In that accusatory and reformist narrative, women such as these in the Uber tale are collateral damage in the necessary revolution of the world and the righting of historical wrongs.

In my reasoning, retaliatory justice is short-sighted and unpardonable, especially when supported by history shortened to 500 years. Violence, no matter how ‘halal,’  neither purifies nor resolves.

And yet this is how the world begins to burn again. I invite you to think on this article: https://www.nationalaffairs.com/publications/detail/civility-and-rebarbarization

The PhotoBooth app on iPad tells you in childlike ways how the user’s face can be distorted and changed. The world is the same. How we see distorts what we see.

No place for the unarmed

We have come to a point where the accident of our birth is become a sign of virtue/merit or sin/shame. It seems to me to be a rolling back of everything the 20th century fought for – that it was possible to overcome the drawbacks of our birth if we so wished. Everything was supposed to be about free will, choice, freedom, rewards for effort and the virtue of self-education. It has now become about being the ‘right’ type, learning to think in the right apocalyptic way, and to learn the right forms of political interaction and groupthink.

So folks are now going to justify bullying, shaming and silencing by saying that people ‘like’ you (with markers of nationality, ethnicity, race, and religion) have been known to do this and this so you are at fault, no matter what you have done as an individual. You deserve it. History puts you at fault, and someone else writes history now. Your turn to be oppressed. We must first reverse the balance of power before we’ll talk about equal and uniform rights for all. And we are exceptional; and while some of us may be at fault, you cannot accuse people ‘like’ me. Take it. Apologize now, and always.

I find this strange, no matter which side it comes from.


She died. I hung her up like a second skin on the peg by the door. In the half-light she looked like an old bag or an empty poncho. My pallet was on the other side of the room. I didn’t need her every day. I had others who said they cried out my name. When I went out I wore her memory like a fragrant face. But perhaps it was she who walked and I stayed, flayed and looking sideways at the twin echoes of my groans. I disappeared when she/I went into the light and the shepherd died. We are body companions now, naked without each other.

Songs of Nations

The Tale of Kings, Rajkahini, (2015), has a song of warning. And its warning is meant to rise above the complex dialectic of opinions on why audiences will listen to it and why they should not.

Some will say, with painstaking accuracy, that the song ‘Bharot bhagyo bidhaata’ is not the Indian National Anthem. The Anthem is comprised of the few lines of Rabindranath Tagore’s original poem, this song in the film is the rest of the poem. Artistes will stress they are producing culture, Bengal, music, Tagore, mela-mesha, aman ki asha, tolerance, even warning, and certainly they are not promoting nationalism. India is not their focus, Bengal is, Bangladesh is. What will be heard of their fine distinction?

Some will listen and be roused by the familiar notes of an anthem they had forgotten to sing, and then felt forbidden to sing (it is surely too parochial, too unmodern, too jingoistic to sing for a nation whose structure gives you the mediocre benefits of its citizenship) and all in conjunction with the faces and names of singers and actors they admire.

Some will be moved to tears by the beauty of the words and the symbolism of the music, in which they will hear longing and belonging to a home, see memories of a fair place, a distant ‘city on a hill,’  and remember a time before the intensification of religious and ethnic tensions in the subcontinent. They won’t stand to attention and salute a flag or a symbol, but they will feel the pull of love and longing for the spaces they call ‘bharot’ in the same place in their hearts where they keep all songs of lost innocence. Nation, god and fate are powerful words to put into any memory, any song.

And some others will see a critique of nations. They will see the blood and corpses that built the wall of the Partition of Bengal in 1947, and will warn the masses that such are nations. At least, such are nations whose boundaries were drawn by modern colonizers, and that is why, they will say, we must seek to re-draw those lines to suit better the nations and tribes and kingdoms and dreams we had before the world entered the age of nations. We need to re-order and keep re-ordering our world for the ‘better.’ Let’s start with the concept of ‘India.’

This is a time of confronting the nation, accepting it or rejecting it, a time of denunciations, and a time for the making of art about it. A time when nationalist sentiment roused by wayward echoes of anthems can be denounced as negative, and people can be taught what to think of the fate of the land beneath their feet. They will be taught to choose against whatever primal defense they will be roused to by the echoes of the Anthem. And many will do so. This is still a safe time.

Some others, good audiences, will see a warning of what happens when too many divided peoples begin to fight for what they want with axe and gun and knife. Perhaps they think that films and scenes such as these will tell people to turn away from militant nationalism.

I think yet some others will look at the path to a separate nation, will see it made possible by a bridge of corpses, and will think they can pay the price and do it.

Nation, god and fate are powerful words to put into any memory, any song.

Silencing – and the universal lament

I will speak to you in another’s voice. Because I fear you will miss my meaning if I speak in mine. Individual stories are anecdotes, representative stories are easier to bear as half-truth. 

“I am afraid to speak.
Because I am afraid to speak, I speak all the time, cloaking and filling that central darkness that could be the productive void but is merely soul-chilling frightening emptiness.
Because I must not speak I catch hold of people and talk, and ask and laugh and am merry. It is proof that I can speak, this babble.
Because I am told I cannot speak, I speak in secret, in allusions and circumlocutions that baffle people and secretly amuse me. If I do not speak so that they listen, then I have not spoken at all.
Because I am afraid to speak, I do not say what I mean. If I do not say it, can they ever catch me?
Because I am told I cannot speak I turn inward and tell myself I cannot, should not, could not, must not. I become two people, one dumb child and one scolding authoritative woman. Neither turns to the world, the world looks in through her eyes.
I must not speak. Instead I do. I work, I act, I have done to me. I build, card-towers of actions, proof of silent concentration, evidence of the inutility of the solitary imagination. I prove, with every gesture, that I accept I cannot speak. And I half-learn to wait, until I can be told that I can.
But I cannot commit, cannot vow, cannot prove my allegiance to non-speaking. In a way, this is going on. For if I was bade to speak, I might speak and be silenced forever.

There is only one authority, one judgment, one chance. I would rather not have it. So I am afraid to speak.”

What Actions, What Response

I reacted with typical horror to the NYT article by Rukmini Callimachi, “ISIS Enshrines a Theology of Rape.”

I could not read it at once, and in-between attempts to finish reading, I wrote: Tomorrow I will think about this with facts and reason and other proper nouns; tomorrow I will not focus on global negative traits, overgeneralize, or fall prey to emotions. Tonight, I am thinking of anti-theism. In between, I will need Christopher Hitchens’ shadowy help. Because I find the idea of subjugating and enslaving another living and sentient creature revolting.

It is tomorrow, and I am picking up on what I think is the fundamental felt response to news such as this: why does someone not intervene?

I am not knowledgeable on foreign policy, nor a soldier (the subject-position of the person who will actually be sent to fight someone or something labeled heinous), nor one of the ‘People of the Book.’ My attitude, position and response are founded on different grounds. This detailing of thoughts and feelings is an attempt to cope with the awareness that no matter what I feel or think, and there are many such as I, my thoughts and feelings are immaterial and useless to those women as an actual deterrent to harm in real-time. Is it wrong to allow this to play out in history ? Is it wrong to battle the red flag? Is it right to grieve and do nothing? What is to be done?

Who will intervene? With what rationale? With what effect at home and abroad? Whose actions will be supported? Which country or individual is safe from retribution if that entity intervenes?

It is important to ask why intervene, why now, why in this. There is a response to the original New York Times article in Slate (http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_slatest/2015/08/13/the_new_york_times_details_isis_s_systemic_use_of_rape_it_is_uniquely_horrifying.html ), which says this sort of evil is uniquely horrifying. I do not know how to judge it unique. I think it is unique in several decades, perhaps, for persecution, enslavement and systematic war on people considered inferior enemies has been the hallmark of human history. It crops up every century in some way or another, and is not limited to any religion or sect. It is a feature of the human. I do not want to fear that it is a feature of the human male in this century (too many young males, unemployment, frustration, lacking stable role models or avenues for energy and achievement). It does not matter whether this strategy is unique or typical or widespread; that sort of reasoning will lead us to try to measure a certain minimum of harm before external intervention can be justified, and I do not believe it is possible to fix that measure.

Neither is it possible to decide whether to condemn hard or softly based on similarities in the degree of horror/harm/excess. That brings me to a point that irritates me in this century’s oppositional politics of all stripes. Every group that is accused of exceeding ethical limits begins to point fingers back to one other or prior group and says well, they did it too, we are not the only baddies, or the unique baddies. I cannot understand how such a reactionary ethic can ever lead to a future that is more peaceful. This is certainly not the only instance of unique transgression and unique horror in the world or in human history. It need not be, either for us to condemn and resist it or for us to say we do not know how to deal with it because it is new.

As for the merits of intervention in real-time history, now, in our present, concerning the countries possibly involved in any conflict around this issue: I strongly believe in cascading effects, at the individual level and the global level. Every international, military or political action cannot help but occur in a context of prior politics, prior war-games, ongoing cultural-political strife, and domestic demographic turmoil. Who can afford to intervene in economic and political terms?

The rationale must be made clear: can we unwind the ethical from the political and the just from the reactionary in our reasoning? For look, military might is being used to systematically use one community for the political ends of the other, and all is being rationalized with a moral and ethical code. Whoever begins to intervene in the injustice by attacking the moral and ethical will come back with a bloodied nose or worse. However, admitting to clear political aims as a basis for intervention is recipe for open wars of another sort.

If asked, I will condemn instances of brutality and slavery in ancient, medieval and modern times equally. I am not so much an idealist as to say that no one need die, and all men and women are good, and so on. Once an event occurs, once harm is done, it cannot be undone. One a child is brutalized and if the child knows no goodness in the people surrounding her, is it right to say to her, your thinking is wrong, change your thinking, because you are generalizing? Or is it better to succor her, prevent her from harming others in her defensive anger, and to prevent such from happening to more children in the future? My readers might object to my ethical movement from ‘right’ to ‘better’ in this paragraph; I will argue that ‘right’ and ‘right’ (what is right and what are our rights) have become sword-slivers and allow for little interpretation in our time, and I will argue for the determination of ‘better’ (the more humane, more benevolent, more fair, more peace-keeping) over ‘right.’ And I will argue that ‘better’ better fits the idea of justice (i.e. what is just and proportionate for everyone) than does ‘right.’

I feel the only justice can be a future justice, a justice based on lessons from history about what not to do and what the human is capable of. A justice pushed into the future, beyond the calculations of action and reaction, and therefore perhaps an unforeseeable justice. Those who believe in religious ‘ends of times’ will find this familiar, because most religiously-cloaked political groups in the world use a foretold justice to incarnate what they see as the necessary conditions of that justice in our times. But I think the way is not to push from a future end backwards into our time, or to reincarnate a lost and past glory in the near future, but to push away from our time into whatever future we can make and above all base this process on a fundamental insistence that we do not know, cannot be the ultimate judge, and therefore must make peace with provisional judgements as we know best in the moment. Revelations, absolute recompense, revenge, retribution, these are fallacious closures to ongoing human conflict.

I find I must retain believe in the capacity of some men and women in every community to act in the name of proportionate justice and to restrain injustice when necessary. Perhaps this is my replacement for the god-ideal that others like to believe in, an external solution, for in the end I do nothing except feel and writhe and write.


Declaration: The intertwining of anger and hatred against the dehumanized ‘Other’ made my bile rise. Perhaps my degree of revulsion is suspect because I am an empath and therefore especially intolerant. Violence is not something I can emotionally encompass without shock, numbness and annihilating rage. The only possible following action, for me, seems to be to turn to the living and try to do something on their behalf. And so anger is followed quickly by sorrow. Who grieves for them? For every wound, every child rushed quickly through the pain of adulthood into sickness and sorrow and death? The remaining affect founders in the mud beneath the clear sky of reason.


The whip and the road

I would not read this BBC story (http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-33096971 ) about two men who survived Tuol Sleng prison, Phnom Penh, as warning against certain kinds of torture or evil government. I would read it instead as reminder of the tendency of human beings to burn all in the quest for their version of utopia. Western, Eastern, Northern, Southern, each and all will sacrifice the Other and then parts of their own peoples to install a better future. It used to be possible to overcome some empires, dictators and tyrants and plot and plan their overthrow or assassination; with each passing decade, with the refinement in technology and the sheer human and economic numbers involved, the calculations for throw and overthrow are not likely to be made by individuals or local groups.

And in all that neutralized (in tone and political statement) story this matter-of-fact sentence is what I would choose to highlight:

‘”If those guards hadn’t tortured a false confession out of me, they would have been executed – I can’t say I would have behaved any differently [in their position],” [Chum Mey] says.’

This is the truth, I think. The blunt everyday evidence to stand beside the Stanford Prison Experiments and William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies. We do not like to talk about these things. We prefer to believe in sweetness and light. Or prefer that when we will make our mini and major empires we shall do it better and more honorably than this. Our souls are surely not like this, not if we adhere to Law or Religion. Surely, if we believe in something higher, our actions will be better. Surely we learn, and progress and evolve.

And yet, I think we merely see what is in front of us, the part of the moral compass that presents itself to our field of sight.

I once quoted elsewhere from a frivolous book: “True pain is like black ink. Enough of it can blot out a man’s soul. If you’re willing to use it, you can write whatever you wish in its place.” In that book these lines were spoken by a character who had been tortured in such a way that he bore no outward marks, and who had ‘sold his soul’ to avoid further pain. Allow me to generalize. Many of us do as the character did. War or sport or the war of life: ’tis all the same. Cumulative trauma exists, and half this hopeful world reels between the black reality of their pain and the unreal reality of the world-machine.

I first quoted that because I was struck by the metaphorical similarity drawn between soul (after ‘intelligence,’ the next most ‘untouchable’ attribute of the ‘human’) and ink-n-paper (in a world where we have grown accustomed to insisting on writing/patenting/publishing/material proof). Allow me another moment to ask metaphysical and utterly visceral questions. Is pain a reflection of soul, i.e. that it is but an illusion? Maybe, but even a monk doing penance knows how the body hurts. And a child knows joy. As for the rest of us: you can wear a person down over the years such that you break their will to resist and fight, to stand tall or act fairly. I have not read or speculated enough to agree if ‘aatma’ is ‘void.’ I suspect every organized and folk religion in the world will give you a different version of the nature, form and characteristics of the soul. And thereby prove or disprove the co-existence of pain with soul. I am irreverent, so I believe none of them until experience tells me true. I do not know about ‘soul,’ but the human can definitely be broken. Just like a horse under rein and spurs.

I know men and women can be broken and redirected at least half against their will. And sometimes, if they are beaten enough, they will be like the horse that attacked whatever it saw on the road in front of it whenever it felt the whip on its back. It could not see behind it (what had trained it, what drove it) but it could see what was in front, and it began to associate pain with what it could see. We can be like that, too. Too easily. Therefore news like this is important, and voices and words such as Primo Levi’s and Wilfred Owen’s and all the rest unknown to my mainstream mind are important, because after training by trauma we need to relearn what it is exactly that hurt us and what we cannot see.